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Hunger in America: 2014 United States Hunger and Poverty Facts

World Hunger Education Service

Hunger in the United States

Five years after the onset of the financial and economic crisis, hunger remains high in the United States. The financial and economic crisis that erupted in 2008 caused a dramatic increase in hunger in the United States. This high level of hunger continues in 2012, according to the latest government report (with the most recent statistics) released in September 2013 (Coleman-Jensen 2013).

Poverty in the United States

The official poverty measure is published by the United States Census Bureau  and shows that:

In 2011 the Census Bureau published a supplemental poverty measure for the first time (US Census Bureau 2011b).  This new measure addresses seven concerns that have been raised about the official poverty measure, including the fact that the offical poverty measure does not reflect the effects of key government policies that alter the disposable income of families and thus their poverty status, such as the SNAP/food stamp program.  (For a good brief discussion of these issues see 2011b, p.1-3.)  Taking these adjustments into account, the supplemental poverty measure showed a 3 million increase in the number of poor people in 2010, compared to the official poverty rate.   Who is poor shows some striking changes. The percentage of children in poverty is 27.7 percent of the total population in poverty with the supplemental measure and 36.1 with the official measure;  while people over 65 are 12.7 percent of the total population in poverty in the supplemental measure and 7.6 percent in the official measure (2011b, p.3-8).  The supplemental poverty measure does measure poverty more accurately, and it is gratifiying to see that programs to reduce poverty and hunger among children have had an impact. 

Causes of hunger and poverty

(Hunger is principally caused by poverty so this section will focus on causes of poverty.)

There are, we believe, three main causes of poverty in the United States: poverty in the world; the operation of the political and economic system in the United States which has tended to keep people from poor families poor, and actual physical mental and behavioral issues among some people who are poor.

Poverty in the world  There are a lot of poor people in the world. An estimated 2 billion people are poor, and the same amount hungry (World Hunger Facts)  They are much, much, poorer than people in the United States.  As can be imagined, people do not want to be hungry and desperately poor.  In the world economic system there are two main ways in which relatively poor people have their income increased: through trade, and through immigration.  Trade, we believe, is the most important.

The operation of the US economic system  The operation of the US economic and political system has led to certain people/groups being relatively disenfranchised.

The normal operation of the economic system will create a significant amount of poverty. 

The operation of the US political system, The US political system, which should address the major problems of its citizens, is to a great extent not focused on fundamental concerns of poor people, but on other concerns. 

The culture of inequality

Programs to address hunger and poverty


Fifty-nine percent of food-insecure households in the survey reported that in the previous month, they had participated in one or more of the three largest Federal food and nutrition assistance programs (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP; Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children or WIC; and National School Lunch Program) (Coleman-Jensen 2013, p. vi).The programs are the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the new name for the food stamp program (Wikipedia 2010), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) (Wikipedia 2010), and the National School Lunch Program (Wikipedia 2010).

SNAP/Food stamps  The Food Stamp Program, the nation’s most important anti-hunger program, helps roughly 40 million low-income Americans to afford a nutritionally adequate diet. More than 75 percent of all food stamp participants are in families with children; nearly one-third of participants are elderly people or people with disabilities.  Unlike most means-tested benefit programs, which are restricted to particular categories of low-income individuals, the Food Stamp Program is broadly available to almost all households with low incomes. Under federal rules, to qualify for food stamps, a household must meet three criteria (some states have raised these limits):

  WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children)

WIC provides nutritious foods, nutrition education, and referrals to health and other social services to low-income pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding women, and infants and children up to age 5 who are at nutrition risk. WIC participants receive checks or vouchers to purchase nutritious foods each month, including infant cereal, iron-fortified adult cereal, vitamin C-rich fruit or vegetable juice, eggs, milk, cheese, peanut butter, dried and canned beans/peas, and canned fish. Other options such as fruits and vegetables, baby foods, and whole wheat bread were recently added. Participants family income must fall at or below 185 percent of the U.S. Poverty Income Guidelines (in 2010, $40,793 for a family of four). Eligibility is also granted to participants in other benefit programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Children are the largest category of WIC participants. Of the 8.7 million people who received WIC benefits each month in FY 2008, approximately 4.3 million were children, 2.2 million were infants, and 2.2 million were women. The cost of the program is $7.252 billion for WIC in FY2010. WIC is not an entitlement program: Congress does not set aside funds to allow every eligible individual to participate in the program. Instead, WIC is a Federal grant program for which Congress authorizes a specific amount of funding each year for program operations.

National School Lunch Program The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program that provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children from low income families, reaching 30.5 million children in 2008.  Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals. Those with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price meals, for which students can be charged no more than 40 cents. (For the period July 1, 2009, through June 30, 2010, 130 percent of the poverty level is $28,665 for a family of four; 185 percent is $40,793.) Children from families with incomes over 185 percent of poverty pay a full price, though their meals are still subsidized to some extent by the program. Program cost was $9.3 billion in 2008. (USDA School Lunch Program)


Perhaps the three principal programs that provide income and other assistance for poor people are the minimum wage, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. Other important  programs, not discussed here, include Medicaid and  the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) and, for older people, Social Security and Medicare. 

Minimum wage The United States enacts a minimum wage (as do some individual states) that tries to establish a floor for what can be paid as a wage by firms. The current minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.  In 2008, the official U.S. poverty level for a family of 4 was $21,834 ( Census Bureau "Poverty Thresholds").  With a 40 hour week, a family of 4 with one minimum wage earner would earn $15,080, only 69 percent of the poverty level. The minimum wage level is not indexed to inflation, which means that the real benefits will be eroded by inflation.

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).  The Earned Income Tax Credit is the mechanism through which, by filing a tax return, low income people and families can receive an income supplement.

The EITC is designed to encourage and reward work. In 2009, the EITC lifted an estimated 6.6 million people out of poverty, including 3.3 million children. The poverty rate among children would have been nearly one-third higher without the EITC. The EITC lifts more children out of poverty than any other single program or category of programs.  One way the EITC reduces poverty is by supplementing the earnings of minimum-wage workers. At the minimum wage’s current level, such a family can move out of poverty only if it receives the EITC as well as food stamps (CBPP EITC.)

Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF)  In 1996, TANF replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, which had been in existence since 1935. The TANF program provides block grants to states to provide assistance to needy families.  States have discretion on how to use the funds. The number of TANF recipients fell substantially in the first five years of the program, in part due to a significant increase in the number of single parents who work, but also due to other factors, such as an inability of families to meet the regulations.  Studies of families that stop receiving TANF assistance show that 60 percent of former recipients are employed—typically at poverty-level salaries between $6 and $8.50 an hour—while 40 percent are not employed. Lack of available child care can well keep single mothers from working as required, for example.  Other factors that undermine TANF’s contribution to people’s security include a five-year time limitation on benefits;  permitting benefits to legal immigrants only 5 years after establishing legal immigration, and a declining level of real funding for the program (Coven 2005). (see CBPP TANF and Wikipedia TANF.)

Last updated July 2014


1.  To get population figures from family size figures, multiply family size numbers by 2.58, the average family size.


Coleman-Jensen, Alisha, Mark Nord, and Anita Singh. Household Food Security in the United States in 2012, ERR-155, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, September 2013. Access this report by going to http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/err-economic-research-report/err155.aspx#.U8_Z7rFwWzk 

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). 2014. "Policy Basics: Introduction to the Earned Income Tax Credit." http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=2505

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). 2014 "Policy Basics: Introduction to the Supplemental Nutrition Program." http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=2226

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). 2012. "Policy Basics: Introduction to  TANF." http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=936

DeNavas-Walt, Carmen, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith. 2011. U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P60-239. " Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010."  U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 2011 http://www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/p60-239.pdf

Holt, Eric. 2006. “The Earned Income Tax Credit at Age 30: What We  Know.” The Brookings Institution. (2006). [BROKEN LINK] http://www3.brookings.edu/metro/pubs/20060209_Holt.pdf

United States Bureau of the Census. 2014. "Poverty Thresholds." http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/threshld/index.html

United States Bureau of the Census. 2011  "The Research Supplemental Poverty Measure: 2010 http://www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/p60-241.pdf

United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. 2011. "Characteristics of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Households: Fiscal Year 2008--Summary."  [BROKEN LINK] http://www.fns.usda.gov/ora/menu/Published/snap/SNAPPartHH.htm

United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. 2011. "National School Lunch Program."  [BROKEN LINK]  http://www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/lunch/AboutLunch/NSLPFactSheet.pdf

United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. 2011. "WIC: The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children"  [BROKEN LINK] http://www.fns.usda.gov/wic/WIC-Fact-Sheet.pdf

Wikipedia. 2014. "Earned Income Tax Credit." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earned_income_tax_credit

Wikipedia. 2011. "Factor price equalization." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Factor_price_equalization

Wikipedia 2014. "Minimum wage." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minimum_wage

Wikipedia. 2014. "National School Lunch Act."  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_School_Lunch_Act

Wikipedia. 2014.  "The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_Responsibility_and_Work_Opportunity_Reconciliation_Act

Wikipedia. 2014. "Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supplemental_Nutrition_Assistance_Program.

Wikipedia. 2014. "Temporary Assistance for Needy Families." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temporary_Assistance_to_Needy_Families


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